Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” first published in the October 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. You can read it more recently in Lovecraft’s Monsters. Spoilers ahead.
“Gasping for breath, I lowered the lamp in still nearer proximity to the face. Were these—these the lineaments of William Wilson?”
William Wilson (not his real name, for that has become an object of scorn, horror and detestation due to the unpardonable criminality of his later years) feels the shadow of Death creep over him, and he now longs to explain what made him leap from relatively trivial wickedness to “the enormities of an Elah-Gabalus.” Hence this narrative.
Unopposed by weak-minded parents as excitable as himself, narrator grows up self-willed, capricious, and ungovernable. He goes to school at the Reverend Dr. Bransby’s, a rambling Elizabethan house surrounded by gnarled trees and excessively ancient houses. There his natural brilliance and imperiousness soon gain him ascendancy over his schoolmates—all but one. By odd chance, there’s another boy named William Wilson at the school, arrived the same day as narrator, born the same day, even physically resembling him in all things except voice. The other Wilson has some vocal defect that keeps him from speaking above a whisper. Narrator acknowledges that he and Wilson might have become friends, except for a few little things: Wilson’s “impertinent and dogged interference with my purposes,” unsolicited counsels made worse by a “most inappropriate and assuredly most unwelcome affectionateness of manner” and “a consummate self-conceit assuming the vulgar airs of patronage and protection.” Oh, and Wilson’s advice is usually good, which is unforgivable. The final insult and injury: Perceiving that it gets on narrator’s last nerve, Wilson imitates his dress, mannerisms, walk, speech. Finally narrator sneaks up to Wilson’s curtained bed to play a malicious prank. What he sees in his rival’s sleeping face strikes him numb with horror. He leaves Bransby’s that night, never to return.
At Eton narrator gets over Wilson by plunging into a “vortex of thoughtless folly,” miserable profligacy, debaucheries, and dangerous seductions. After one night of “delirious extravagance,” narrator is summoned to the door by an insistent stranger. In the faint light of dawn, narrator perceives a youth of his own height, dressed in the novel fashion he himself wears, but the stranger’s face he can’t distinguish. The stranger seizes his arm and whispers “William Wilson!” He then vanishes, face still unseen; shocked to the soul as by “galvanic battery,” narrator still knows who his visitor was.
Narrator broods over Wilson’s purpose until distracted by his removal to Oxford. With a big enough allowance to satisfy even his idea of proper luxury, he adds “no brief appendix to the long catalogue of vices then usual in the most dissolute university of Europe.” Worse, he abandons “all manly and honourable sentiment” by learning the arts of the professional gambler and fleecing the weak-minded among his fellow collegians. He has just finished ruining young Lord Glendinning in a game of ecarte when the doors of their host’s chambers burst open and all the candles go out. In the darkness a man enters, cloak-muffled. His whisper thrills narrator to the marrow as he tells the party that the person who won a large sum from Glendinning that evening is a cheat. For proof, check his left sleeve cuff and pockets.
The man disappears. The partiers seize narrator and discover his stashed court cards and marked decks. Their silent contempt is worse than loud indignation. The host orders narrator out, offering him his fur cloak. Narrator takes it, but it’s not his own, for that cloak’s already on his arm. The two are identical, and so he knows who must have dropped the second cloak.
Narrator flees to the continent. His “evil destiny” pursues him. At Rome, Wilson thwarts narrator’s ambition; at Paris, his revenge; his passionate love at Naples; his avarice in Egypt. Terror at Wilson’s apparent omnipresence has hitherto rendered narrator submissive to his inexplicable persecution, but lately he’s given himself up to the maddening influence of wine, and it inspires him to a desperate resolution!
The crisis comes in Rome, at a masquerade ball. Narrator is in dubious pursuit of a duke’s giddy young bride when a man costumed just like him interferes. Raging, narrator drags Wilson into an antechamber. Luckily their costumes included rapiers, so they can fight it out in style. Wilson, reluctant, only defends. Narrator attacks with wild fury, drives Wilson to the wall, and plunges his blade through his bosom.
Someone rattles the antechamber door. Narrator rushes to secure it. When he turns back to his victim, he thinks he’s facing a previously unnoticed mirror. Actually, he watches the dying Wilson stagger towards him, not a line in his bloodied face that isn’t “in the most absolute identity” narrator’s own.
Narrator has conquered, Wilson says. “Yet, henceforth art thou also dead—dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”
What’s Cyclopean: It would be supererogatory to look through Wilson’s fur cloak for signs of card-sharking.
The Degenerate Dutch: Wilson blames his degeneracy on the “imaginative and easily excitable temperament” of his “race,” by which he appears to mean his family.
Mythos Making: The language is awfully Lovecraftian—or rather, Lovecraft’s language is pretty Poeish, especially in the early stories.
Libronomicon: Wilson’s not much of a reader…
Madness Takes Its Toll: …but he sure does seem to have a drinking problem.
As far as I can recall, Lovecraft never actually did doppelgangers. If someone else is wearing your face, it’s probably because they’re a time-traveling archivist or an immortality-seeking sorcerer who’s literally wearing your face because you aren’t wearing it any more. But Poe’s language—ah! I can picture young Howard reading this, writhing in ecstasy at the angst-ridden turns of phrase. The wildest of all sublunary visions! Objectless yet intolerable terror! Spectral officiousness!
The influence is clear in early work like “The Outsider,” where our narrator ponders the influence of his childhood memories with similar adjectival angst. I also recognize strains of its roundabout-hinted debauchery in “The Tomb” and “The Hound.” You can kinda tell that Lovecraft didn’t have much direct experience with debauchery, and that Poe had maybe less than, I don’t know, Oscar Wilde, whose Picture of Dorian Gray this week’s selection put me strongly in mind of—if Dorian’s portrait had a penchant for showing up and ruining his parties rather than sitting decorously in his attic. And Lovecraft and Poe are definitely less willing to get into the sordid details than Poppy Z. Brite in “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood.” There’s a difficult balance to be had between hinting at vices beyond the reader’s imagination, and underlining that the reader’s imagination didn’t go nearly far enough. The failure mode of the former is the lurking suspicion that the authors’ imagination may not have gone far enough either. Give Poe credit, when he gets specific he hits on sins that still seem sinful to most modern readers, like cheating someone out of their life savings.
Back to doppelgangers. Lovecraft’s Others are as different from us as it’s possible to get, whether they’re fungal vampires or rot-spreading colors or bone-chomping ghouls. Or at least, we like to think they’re different—though occasionally we might learn that we’re every bit as weird. The self turning into Other is the ultimate in terror. The doppelganger raises the opposing specter: the Other becomes the self. In many stories the doppel takes over the original’s life, or simply commits unspeakable crimes to be blamed on the innocent. But here our narrator Wilson’s the evil twin. It’s his good side that plagues him and confounds his wicked machinations—and like Captain Kirk, to destroy his other side is to destroy himself.
But what about the other side of the story? Is Other Wilson really nothing more than Narrator Wilson’s prickling conscience from the start? Or is he drawn into that identity, either because of his mocking interactions with Narrator Wilson at school, or simply because he gets too close and the sympathetic magic of names does the rest? How much more horror for him, and how sympathetic the reader might be, as he’s transformed from a decent kid trying to make it through Eton, into someone whose sole purpose is to stand between his evil twin and damnation? Though he does get some fancy clothes out of the bargain. Not to mention hella style: most of us can only dream of bursting into a debauched party silhouetted with a flowing cloak, dousing the candles with the force of our entry. A girl can dream.
Not only can you sometimes run away from the other, but most people can go their whole lives without meeting unseeable colors, house-haunting vampires, and miscellaneous monsters from dimensions beyond earthly understanding. You are always right there. Not only that, but as with the best of Lovecraft’s creations, attraction and repulsion are often inextricably intertwined. The idea that you might be your own worst enemy—I, at least, find that more terrifying than the otheriest other.
If Poe meant William Wilson II’s nature to confound anyone other than William Wilson I, he blew it right at the epigraph: “What say of it? What say of CONSCIENCE grim, that specter in my path?” Oooh, so Wilson II is Wilson I’s CONSCIENCE, like, personified, because something, maybe metaphor or metaphysics or one of those other metathingies, got it. What’s more, unlike cardsharp Wilson I, Poe really shows his hand by attributing his motto to 17th century playwright William Chamberlayne when actually Chamberlayne never wrote quite those lines, in Pharronida or any other play. Possibly Poe misremembered a similar line and rewrote it to better suit his purpose.
Which would have been to stage-whisper, “Hey, guys, to be a tad anachronistic here, what about the whole super-ego and id thing? Like, to throw in a cliche graphic representation, the super-ego would be the angel on your one shoulder and the id would be the devil on your other shoulder. Here’s the scary thing. Forget about the devil hopping off your shoulder and becoming your Evil Twin. Done to death. What if the ANGEL hopped off and became your VIRTUOUS Twin? No, worse. Your VIRTUE-PUSHING/FINGER-WAGGLING/PUBLIC NAG of a Twin? The BFF from Hell, who hasn’t turned against you, no, that would be tolerable. The BFF who has decided to use his intimate knowledge of you to point out all your shortcomings in all the social media, for your own good. Your CONSCIENCE, in effect. That would be the ultimate horror, am I right? Now, if you’ll excuse me, the multiplying anachronisms have driven me to the laudanum bottle.”
Drink deep, Mr. Poe, for surely there is some truth in your assertion. Ruthanna writes that the thought we’re our own worst enemies is more terrifying than the otheriest Other; I assert (with Poe, I think) that the specific enemy-face our William Wilsons wear is that of the Critic.
But wait, it gets worse, this worst. Our William Wilsons aren’t Critics snarky for snark’s sake. They aren’t Critics tearing down others to build themselves up. They aren’t just plain ignorant or just plain biased. They are the heartbreaking Critics who understand us, who love and believe in our work, who try to wrest us out of whatever morass we insist on sinking in, because in rescuing us they rescue themselves.
They are us. They are the Ones, and we are the Others; we are the Ones, and they are the Others. We share the same body, though magic or strange science or madness can split us apart. We share the same soul and cannot live without each other. If we breathe on after killing our supposed antagonist, as Wilson I does, it’s as a soulless shell, core-dead, a monster far more depraved in “death” than he was in life.
It’s no wonder, after all, that Wilson I has moments of feeling he and Wilson II could have been friends. That he has elusive memories of knowing Wilson II from before. Of course they could have been friends. Of course he knew him before.
A malign force, indeed, supernatural or temperamental or pathological, that sundered the Wilsons into Others and never let them be One again.
Next week, we delve into “Unseen—Unfeared” by Francis Stevens, a.k.a. Gertrude Barrows Bennett, “the woman who invented dark fantasy.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.